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Our Students Are Better Than Our Schools

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Our students are actually much better than our schools. At least my students over the last two decades at York College are and I see no reason to doubt it is true of most American students. I have discovered this by analyzing my students' performance at the following task. In my classes I set my students one extremely difficult assignment. It is so difficult given their general backgrounds and school performance that you would expect them to take one look and drop my course. But they actually do this very difficult assignment and do it so well that by very strict grading standards they generally score two letter grades above their midterm and final-exam averages. A "C'' student will typically turn in "A'' work.

What assignment do I give and how do I make the students do it? First, I don't make them do it, because I can't make them do it. I do make a very big fuss about it, explaining just how hard it is and how very long it will take them to complete it. And for 22 years students who were listless in their reading and lackluster or worse in class performance have galvanized themselves for this assignment which they performed at a very high level, indeed.

I give my students a passage of from 3,000 to 5,000 words from a very difficult text, usually Plato or Aristotle. The text is so difficult that very well-educated adults not trained in philosophy would have difficulty explaining the passage on one or two readings. I require my students, after six weeks of reading and thinking about the passage, to write a 2,500-word explication of it. The standard they are to aim for is that an intelligent and interested 13-year-old after reading the paper would understand the problem at issue, the solutions proposed, and outlines of the main arguments.

My 20-odd years of giving such assignments have convinced me that the main problem with our schools at all levels is that they are too easy. For the most part, with too few honorable exceptions, they accept virtually anything students do. Students, being rational and self-interested over a short time horizon, do as little as possible, which is very little, indeed. The vast majority of them are intelligent enough to do a great deal more. But their habits of reading and concentration remain undeveloped by the trivial and undemanding assignments they are given.

So when most of them reach college they do not know how to do demanding assignments, even were they given any. They don't even know that demanding assignments exist because all they have experience of was so easy. This remains so even in math and science as taught for non-majors. This triviality of assignment and work persists even in college. A report by the Carnegie Foundation tells us that in college 75 percent of full-time students study or read fewer than 30 hours a week--including class time! And more and more even of our college classes demand little or no reading or work.

This weak ethos of our schools and our departments of teacher preparation to demand so little from students is now too deeply ingrained to be reformed by outside pressures. And, anyway, there are precious few outside pressures to reform them. But we might just use the rational self-interest of students and their parents to raise standards from within by adopting the following plan.

Let the state and federal government announce that they are forming a single pool of funds which will pay full tuition, books, and reasonable living expenses for four years at any college or university that accepts any student who meets all the following conditions:

  • 1. Achieves a combined score of 1200 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.
  • 2. Attends full-time, taking enough credits each term to graduate in 4 years.
  • 3. Holds no employment during the school year except as a scholarly or scientific research assistant.

Ground rules:

  • Reasonable ceilings would be established for family income, say, $75,000 a year for one child, $100,000 for two, etc.
  • Students who flunked or dropped out would have to repay the monies with interest and would be ineligible to reenter the program. (Exceptions would be confined to serious illness or family crises, which would have to be verified.)
  • No attack on the S.A.T. would be tolerated. If pressure, legal or otherwise, were brought in order to lower the required S.A.T. score, or to allow alternate certification for entry into the program, or to eliminate the S.A.T., the program would be discontinued. This destructive mechanism would be written into the enabling legislation.

How would this raise the standards of our schools? Given the very high costs of sending students to college, fewer and fewer families can now afford to do so and fewer and fewer colleges will have the resources to put together attractive financial packages for prospective students. So for more and more students and their families a plan like this is just about the only way students can attend college without bankrupting themselves.

The tight conditions on this scholarship program would make it very difficult for most students to meet the requirements unless the schools improved greatly. This situation would create a demand on the part of students and their parents for students to be placed in the most demanding courses in each school. At the same time, it would create a demand for more such courses. When that demand was met, the scholarship plan would have achieved its second goal: to raise our schools to the level of our students.

Barry R. Gross is a professor of philosophy at York College, City University of New York, in Jamaica, N.Y.

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